Being alone is a wonderful thing. With a focused mind and an abundance of self-confidence, even the most average of humans can bottle lightning. Nina Valentine was not what you would call average, but she was currently alone. And in this stolen moment of solitude, Nina was doing what Nina did best - building a robot.
Sitting in a sea of Lego, her little hands snatched red, green, blue and yellow bricks. Long bricks, short bricks, skinny and fat bricks. The favoured few were stuck to her creation, the rest forgotten in pointy piles around her tiny frame. Nina was alone more often than not, and though the idea of having a friend amused her, she was perfectly content with her fate. After all, living 100 feet below ground was infinitely better than being dead.
Designed and built by her parents before she was born, the bunker, or "casa de Valentine" as they so lovingly called it, was an underground fortress of reinforced steel, concrete, and all the comforts of home. The layout was simple, functional. A total of ten rooms connected to a central corridor, which accessed the world above via a single circular manhole. This manhole had now been sealed for approximately 9 years, and was expected to stay that way for many more.
Nina was in the audio visual room at present - a humble cinema complete with 6-foot wide projector screen and plush, charcoal-coloured sofas. To the left of the screen, the walls were lined with countless video cassettes and DVD wallets. To the right, bright orange boxes held plastic-cased CDs and ancient vinyls in tattered card covers. On the wall opposite, dog-eared paperbacks and hardbacks formed an impressive library of essential literature; Shakespeare to Scott Fitzgerald, Dahl to Dr Seuss. Nina was nestled on the floor between the sofas and the screen, her Lego horde suffocating the baby blue carpet.
Connecting a wheel to the base of the robot, she paused to take in the flashing images on the screen. Three little duck butts wiggled away from her on a blue background. They soon turned to reveal Huey, Dewey, and Louie Duck, their uncle Scrooge McDuck bursting in to join them from stage left. The infectious and unmistakable soundtrack of DuckTales filled the room, Nina embracing the instinct to bounce along.
As the intro faded away and the episode proper began, Nina’s eyes dipped back to her task. She gathered another handful of bricks and applied them to her masterpiece, each placement calculated, precise. As she planted a semitransparent green dot on its head, Nina’s cheeks lifted into an exceptional, self-satisfied grin. She cleared a space and plonked the robot on the carpet before her.
It stood at attention, a good 8 inches tall. Though entirely built of plastic, there was no denying the robot’s purpose - cannons for arms, rubber-rimmed wheels on its feet, and beady red eyes matching those of a T-800 Terminator. This bot was built for battle. She wrapped her left hand around its torso and rose to her feet. Placing each foot carefully, she hopped out of the room, leaving Scrooge’s charming Scottish accent to fill the void.
At least if this place collapses, nobody will have to bury us. The thought, morbid as it was, brought a faint smile to Derek Valentine’s face as he reached for the umpteenth ladder rung. His calloused hand found purchase and he took another step upward, his head lamp casting a saber of light onto the manhole lid a couple of feet above. With one more rung and a slight grip adjustment, Derek settled below the lid. He ran his thumb along the rim where the lid met the manhole wall and held it up to the light. A thin, greasy sheen now covered his thumbprint.
"Well that’s... reassuring," he said, rubbing thumb and finger together to dispel the grease.
He gripped the top rung again and-
The entire manhole shook violently, throwing Derek into the wall and discarding his head lamp. He squinted into the abyss and watched as its light flickered with each new bounce before finally going dim several feet below.
"One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississ-"
BOOM! Derek, left elbow hooked over a rung, swayed like a leaf fighting the inevitability of Autumn. This second impact, though less than the first, filled Derek with dread all the same. As the tremors subsided, he discovered his footing and unhinged his elbow, opting for a two-handed grip instead.
"One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. Four Mississippi. Five Mississippi."
Derek sucked in a breath and listened, waited. After an age of silence, he exhaled and descended. Several clunking steps and tense minutes later, Derek’s right boot found concrete. He stepped his left foot down. Crack.
He crouched to gather the shattered head lamp from beneath his boot. Still in a pitch black world, Derek fumbled along the wall behind him until his fingers found a cool steel handle. A twist, push, and faint pop later and he fell into the warm yellow glow of a long, empty corridor. The broken head lamp scattered across the floor before him and he squinted hard, adjusting to the light.
He opened his eyes, dusting his hands on a much-loved tee - a relic from David Bowie’s "Serious Moonlight" tour of ’83. He wore it well despite its obvious age, the faded black fabric hugging his thin frame like only nostalgia can. The same couldn’t be said of his baggy blue dad jeans, which lived a good three inches above his waistline. Derek had always favoured comfort over style, function over form. He knelt before the broken lamp.
"He’s ready, daddy!" Nina stepped into the far end of the corridor, her Lego robot held high.
"Well let’s see him then." Derek pocketed the lamp pieces as Nina raced to join him.
"I used only the best bricks this time."
"So you did." Derek accepted the robot from Nina and examined it closely. "The wheels are a stroke of genius, my love."
He kissed his fingers Italian-style as Nina hugged his hip with tremendous force, her face tilted up to greet him with a magic smile.
"Can we show mummy now?"
Derek tousled Nina’s auburn locks and returned her robot.
Nina broke away from Derek’s leg and skipped further down the corridor to a closed steel door. She paused, looked back at him. Derek responded with a subtle nod as he strode to join her. Nina knocked on the door. Once, twice, but not quite a third time as it swung in on itself. Nina stepped back and was caught by Derek’s open hand on her shoulder. A white welding mask greeted the pair, nestled above filthy, formerly red overalls.
"Majors Valentine, requesting permission to come aboard," Derek said, offering a loose salute to their mysterious masked companion.
A gloved hand gripped the side of the mask and eased it back to reveal Mags Valentine’s beautifully dirty visage, frozen in stoicism. Her black hair was pulled up into a messy bun. Her emerald eyes matched Nina’s perfectly, overflowing with questions and wonder. Without moving her face, she surveyed the duo; Derek first, then Nina. She shifted her head a fraction to observe Nina’s Lego robot.
Mags crouched to gather Nina in her arms, spinning her through the doorway. Mags planted her onto a swiveling chair and gave it a light push, spinning Nina in a slow circle. Nina giggled as she took in the veritable bomb site of Mags’s workshop - every surface, nook, and cranny was smothered with tools, trinkets, bits, bobs, odds, ends and electrical doodads. Mags caught the chair as Nina came back to face her. She took a knee, her eyes meeting Nina’s.
"You’ve been busy, button." she said warmly.
"Can we see yours now?"
"Do you think you’re ready?"
"Very well." Mags crossed to the opposite side of the workshop where a long bench remained shrouded in shadows. "Lady, gentleman. Meet Emvee-thirteen." She flicked a wall-mounted switch, illuminating the bench.
Nina gasped and Derek let out a low whistle, shaking his head in disbelief. There, covering almost the entire bench, lay a carbon-fibre, humanoid robot. Its head, torso, and limbs were an electrifying blue, trimmed with cherry red joints. The robot’s eyes remained closed, but beneath artificial eyelids lingered porcelain white pupils.
"Thoughts?" Mags said, leaning against the bench next to Emvee-thirteen’s legs.
"He’s quite the paperweight," Derek said with a grin.
"Does he have a real name?" Nina said, standing on tiptoes beside the robot’s head.
"You don’t like Emvee-thirteen?" Mags folded her arms and smirked. "What would you suggest?"
Nina reached up and touched Emvee-thirteen’s shoulder. She walked along the bench, her hand gliding over the robot’s smooth arm and down to its open palm. She gripped its index finger loosely and looked to her mother.
"Bob." Nina said.
"Bob." Derek said, tousling Nina’s hair again.
"Very well. Let’s say hi to Bob then, shall we?"
Mags moved to a dusty desktop computer just past Bob’s feet, and typed furiously. Right on command, a series of dialog boxes appeared and disappeared on the computer’s screen in quick succession. Mags hit the Return key and-
An error box popped up. She hid the box and typed again, ending with Return. Same box. Same problem.
"Looks like we’re going in manually," she said.
Shimmying around Nina and using her left arm, Mags propped Bob up into a seated position on the bench. She pulled a Phillips screwdriver from the front pocket of her overalls and stuck it into a small hole on a panel located at the base of Bob’s skull. With a few choice twists, Mags pulled the screwdriver back and pried the panel open to reveal a digital keypad and glowing LED display. She turned to Nina.
"Remind me, button, when’s your birthday?" she said.
Nina frowned, searching her young brain for the answer.
Mags punched 1204 into the keypad.
"Nineteen, ninety... One?"
Mags rewarded Nina with a thumbs up and tapped the nine, one, and OK buttons. The digital display blinked on and the following text appeared in neon green: 1 - ACTIVATE. Derek lifted Nina and held her close to Bob’s exposed skull.
"Go on," said Mags. Nina smiled and squished her pudgy finger onto the OK button. A faint hum rumbled across Bob’s entire body as Mags slapped and screwed the panel shut. The intrigued trio stepped back. Bob’s eyelids snapped open and his pupils flashed a brilliant white light. Mags gripped Nina’s hand and the Valentines stared in silence as Bob sat there, completely immobile, eyes open wide. Long seconds dripped by. Nina fidgeted, a ball of excited energy. More seconds. Derek looked to Mags as-
Bob blinked, causing Nina to squeal with delight. A moment later, Bob turned his torso and faced the anxious family. He greeted them with a warm smile, betraying his otherwise icy appearance. Mags shuffled a touch forward, Nina peeking out behind her.
"Say hello, Bob." Mags said.
"Hello, Bob." Bob said, his voice bearing an uncanny resemblance to Sean Connery in The Last Crusade. His eyes took on a soft baby blue colour as he examined his new family.
Nina and Derek shared a giggle.
"I like this guy," Derek said.
"That’s Mikey," said Nina, pointing at the projector screen. "He’s my favourite."
Bob and Nina shared one of the leather sofas as they analysed an action-packed Ninja Turtle adventure. Nina wriggled and jumped at each exciting moment, while Bob watched passively. Behind them, Mags and Derek stood out of the way, observing their interactions.
"Isn’t he meant to be teaching her?" Derek said.
"They’re both learning," Mags said, scrawling words and numbers onto a clipboard held at her waist. Right on cue, Bob twitched, mimicking Nina’s own actions. He fell in sync with her movements; a shuffle left when she moved left, an exaggerated shoulder jiggle as hers shook involuntarily.
A startled scream from Nina made Bob tense up, his head snapping to stare at her. Derek shuffled forward, but Mags took his hand. A pinkish glow formed around Bob’s eyes as he analysed Nina, hunting for the source of her perceived pain. Nina, oblivious to all lookers-on, smiled with impish joy as the Turtles dispatched a fresh army of Foot Soldiers. As the half-shelled heroes triumphed, Nina slumped back and nestled against Bob’s shoulder. Bob’s eyes returned to their baby blue hue; satisfied, Mags and Derek slipped silently from the room.
"I admire Donatello," Bob said suddenly, sans emotion.
"Why? He’s so boring."
"He is the most intelligent, most resourceful, and certainly the most level-headed," Bob said. "Are these not desirable attributes?"
"You talk like my mum."
On screen, Donatello used his staff to deflect a Foot Soldier away from Michelangelo.
"I guess Donny’s not so bad," Nina said, dropping onto the carpet. "Come on, let’s be ninjas!"
She struck a loose, ninja-like pose, her right hand taunting Bob to join her. Bob pushed off the sofa and stood above her. He assessed her positioning briefly, then stepped forward, correcting her stance with deft touches to her elbows, hips, and feet. Nina watched him carefully, but didn’t protest. Satisfied with his adjustments, Bob fell back into his own, perfect stance.
A cheeky smile formed on Nina’s face and she dashed toward him, arms flailing. Bob pivoted away from her easily to avoid contact. Nina skidded to a stop and charged him again, but was met with an equally efficient evasion. Nina turned to face him, arms crossed.
"Stop moving!" she shouted.
"If I do not move, we will certainly make contact."
"Duh, how else are we meant to fight?"
"I cannot fight you, Nina. Combat increases the risk of harm."
"I’m a big girl."
"Size is irrelevant. Harm can befall any creature, big and small."
"That’s why I need training!"
Nina threw her arms in the air and stormed past him, out of the room. As she reached the doorway, a cunning thought crossed her mind. She spun back and marched right up to Bob, who hadn’t moved an inch since she left. His bright eyes surveyed her closely.
"New game, Bob."
"Of course," he replied, hands tucked behind his back like a seasoned military man. "What would you have me do?"
Nina leapt onto the nearest sofa and burrowed her hands beneath its creased cushions. A grimace crossed her face as she squirmed and strained, a child possessed. Finally, she wrestled her arms from the sofa’s dusty jaws, a faded, yellow polka-dot baby’s blanket clasped in her right fist.
"Take a knee, Bob." She sucked in air and stepped back from the sofa to give Bob room. As he lowered his left knee Nina stepped in front of him, blanket stretched wide, and draped it across his face. She reached down and lifted his right hand, using it to hold one side of the blanket against his head. Holding the blanket’s opposite side, she scrambled around him and brought the two loose ends together, tying them in a lazy knot Derek had taught her one educational afternoon.
"Up you get," she said, shifting back to stand before him.
"Are you going to hide now?"
"Wrong game, Bob. Just stay exactly as you are. Okay?"
"As you wish."
Good dog, she thought. Of course Nina had never in fact met a dog, but Bob responded to commands much like the fictional canines she’d seen - Lassie, Benji, and Old Yeller. Nina walked backwards to the far side of the room, making a mental note to watch the end of Old Yeller when her parents couldn’t stop her. Her back now against the wall, she eyeballed the now blindfolded Bob. Here goes nothing. Nina sprinted straight at him, arms pumping by her sides and loose hair whipping her face. Bob remained remarkably placid. Game over, Foot Soldier, she thought, as she jumped onto the edge of the sofa, kicked off, and flew midair toward him.
Through Nina’s wide eyes, time slowed to a standstill. She drifted through the air like a tissue on the faintest wind puff, moving about as fast as Aesop’s tortoise. She watched as Bob’s head tilted sideways, inch by agonising inch, and his body descended into another obscure ninja stance - a crane, perhaps? His arms spread wide and plucked Nina out of the air, pulling her into a tight embrace. With her body glued to his, he sunk lower still, and rolled across the ground toward the nearest sofa. Bob thrust a powerful hand up and flipped the sofa on its side, pulling it on top of them.
Time flooded back to regular speed as the world imploded around them, engulfing the pair in a midnight blanket.
Am I dead? Nina’s eyes fluttered open, greeted by a wall of black. No. I can still feel things, like that annoying ache on my left knee. And what’s that smell? She sniffed, taking in a blend of dust, motor oil, and her own sweat. Gross. Her mouth was dry, her tongue sore. Had she bitten it? A distant thud filled her ears, joined by a subtle vibration that swelled through her. Another thud followed. Then another. Each one was a fraction quieter, leaving a shorter vibration than the last.
Move. Nina wriggled her little fingers and toes. That’s promising. She tried to roll over but her left shoulder hit something right above her. Nina raised her left hand and touched the object - smooth, with a thin ridge. She had felt this before...
Her voice sounded strange, restricted. She cleared her throat.
"Bob, is that you?"
Her right hand touched the object as well. She shuffled slightly and her fingers reached a bump - the palm of Bob’s robotic hand.
"Bob! Bob it’s me! Nina! You’re on top of me! Bob I can’t move! Because you’re on top of me!"
Panic crept in and Nina banged on Bob’s dormant body.
"Mum! Dad! Bob has fallen over, and I’m stuck under him!"
Twin lights flashed across Nina’s face and she shut her eyes in defiance. Bob blinked and looked down at the frightened girl beneath him.
"Nina. I am here. You are safe now."
"B-Bob... What’s g-going on?"
With a quick shift of mechanical components, Bob rose a foot higher above Nina. He moved all his weight onto his right arm and lifted his left, flipping the overturned sofa off his back. Debris crumbled over him, but Nina was sheltered beneath his torso. Bob tilted to his side and stood, his eyes sweeping over the pitch black room, catching brief glimpses of the destruction around them.
"Everything will be all right, Nina."
He offered her his warmest robot smile and a hand, which she eventually took. Bob lifted her to her feet and dusted dirt from her hair and shoulders. Her body trembled with shock and fear, but she was alive.
"Why is it dark?"
"Power failure, most likely. But your parents will have it back in no time."
Right on cue, the overhead lights flickered on. Nina’s face dropped as she saw the true extent of what had happened. Everywhere she looked, the sanctuary of the AV room was nigh unrecognisable. The projector screen was a crumpled heap on the now filth-clumped carpet, flanked by piles of cracked DVDs, video cassettes, CDs and vinyls. One sofa now held chunks of fallen concrete, while the other - the one Bob had used as a shield - was upside down, its base split in two.
"Was it an earthquake?"
"I am unsure at present. But you are safe, nothing can hurt you."
"Where’s mum and dad?"
"We will find them."
Nina nodded, her confidence well shaken. Bob wrapped his hand around her little fingers and helped her weave through the rubble and out into the corridor. The scene here was little better than the last. A large portion of the right wall was now bent in on itself, rebar exposed and jutting out like rigid spider’s legs. At the top of the wall, the skirting hung like a half-peeled scab, revealing the bunker’s electric cabling beneath. One such cable sparked, causing the overhead lamps to flicker erratically. Further along, water gushed from a fresh scar and crept across the width of the corridor.
Bob led Nina past the water and around a natural left-hand bend. Another spark zipped out behind them, followed by a loud pop. The lights failed. Nina let out a hushed squeak as Bob’s eyes lit the path before them. He dimmed his eyes immediately, but it was too late. Nina saw what no child should ever have to see, especially one of barely 7 years old. She fell to her knees.
In the flash of Bob’s eyes, she saw a gaping chasm in the corridor ceiling. She saw the mountain of rubble that blocked their path. She saw a hand, bloodied and limp. Her father’s hand, cold and lifeless.
Beside the hand, Nina’s Lego robot lay face down, every piece in its place.